Originally published to Forbes - April 14th, 2022
A new high school principal was settling into her office when a parent knocked on the door. It was a mom who wanted to welcome the new principal and introduce her son, who had just graduated with a diploma in hand.
“That’s great!” the principal said, before asking the student what his plans were for the fall. “Let us show you,” said the mom, who took that day’s newspaper off the principal’s desk, handed it to her son, and asked him to read the headline aloud. He couldn’t decipher a single word. The silence was deafening, but the mother got her message across loud and clear.
I recently heard this story from Tom Rooney, the Superintendent of the Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD). Unfortunately, it is an all-too-common occurrence that is playing out in school districts across the country. But what is truly remarkable about LUSD’s story is the innovation it sparked — a shift toward personalized learning that is driving an incredible turnaround in the district.
“We were moving learners through the system based on the calendar, not what they had learned or what they were ready to learn next,” Mr. Rooney explained. “We weren’t accounting for the fact that people learn in different ways and in different time-frames – and that uniformity wasn’t helping the majority of our students achieve success.”
Strict timetables and rigid curricula lead many school districts to “teach to the middle” in ways that leave far too many students behind for far too long. Thankfully, that’s beginning to change – with approaches to learning that empower students to move at their own pace; understand how they are progressing in relation to their peers; and leverage wraparound services that help address the many issues that can hinder learning both in and outside the classroom.
It’s a model that has demonstrated improved student outcomes in districts across the country, and it’s being used or considered in 39 states. It’s also positioning students for success not just through high school and college, but in a workforce that is evolving faster than ever before.
Jamie Casap, author and former chief education evangelist at Google, recently told me that personalized learning is essential to providing students with the skills needed to fill the jobs of the future. “We can’t build curricula based on what everyone needs to learn, because those things are always changing,” he says. “We should be asking kids ‘what problem do you want to solve?,’ and giving them the freedom and support they need to solve it in their own way. That’s how we create the critical thinkers we’re going to need moving forward – and it’s how we help students recognize and use their unique passions, talents, and gifts.”
We’re seeing that personalization works for our kids today and will serve them well tomorrow. So, how can more schools and districts implement the kind of game-changing reforms that have made such a positive difference for others?
Create a “continuum of learning”
It all starts with the creation of what Tom Rooney calls a “continuum of learning” – a learning journey that begins at a student’s developmental level, and that is traveled only as fast as performance dictates. “The content has nothing to do with your age or grade level,” he says. “Learners move forward when they demonstrate proficiency, at a pace that instills confidence because it is appropriate for each individual.” Personalized learning ensures that students have the foundational knowledge needed to acquire new knowledge. It’s a simple concept, but one that is all too often overlooked when students are forced to march in lockstep with their peers.
Tailor the timeframe and the content
There’s more to personalized learning than teaching the same content at a different pace. Learners are grouped into small cohorts based on frequent assessments, which enables instructors to avoid teaching to the middle and present the curriculum in ways that are relevant and contextualized to learners’ day-to-day lives. Lessons are mapped to students’ needs, interests, and personal learning styles. In the end, students are able to apply what they’ve learned to the real-world they inhabit every day, no matter where on the bell curve they reside.
Make progress as transparent as possible
Students need a clear and concise roadmap. That’s a key tenet of personalized learning – and though one might think that students could be easily embarrassed by dashboards that display every student’s progress for all to see, it actually serves to motivate students in ways that were lacking before. Students know where they want to go, and – more importantly – how to get there, and that’s all they really need to be inspired to chase their goals.
The power of personalized learning
Through the power of personalized learning, schools are diminishing the chance that another parent will ever again be forced to walk into a principal’s office and demonstrate how a child was allowed to slip through the cracks. When progress depends on proficiency, when content is made relevant, and when goals are transparent and understood, there is no place for a learner to hide. Students can’t simply skate by from year to year until crossing the stage no better off than when they started – because there is no one pushing them down their path other than themselves.